New Arab political party brings ‘hope for change’

At a time when faith in the government and Arab political parties is at an all-time low, along comes Hope for Change.

Atef Krenawi 370 (photo credit: ILENE PRUSHER)
Atef Krenawi 370
(photo credit: ILENE PRUSHER)
At a time when faith in the government and Arab political parties is at an all-time low, along comes Hope for Change.
The political party, which just officially registered for next month’s elections, is singing a very different tune than the existing Arab political parties – one that could successfully play into the widespread dissatisfaction and economic distress among Israeli Arabs.
The party’s founder and leader, Atef Krenawi, is presenting a new and unprecedented platform. It would focus on the internal issues plaguing Israeli Arab communities – such as violent crime, domestic violence and unemployment. The party would also present a plan to encourage young Israeli Arabs to do national service in place of the army – a lightning-rod issue as decision-makers face the ongoing debate over whether to draft haredi men.
Furthermore, Krenawi says he is willing to join any government that comes to power – including one led by Likud Beytenu.
Krenawi’s political home, after all, is Likud. After being active in the right-wing party for more than 15 years, he decided to strike out on his own. For the past eight months, he’s been canvassing the country, garnering supporters and bringing other prominent Israeli Arabs on board for the “realistic” spots on his list.
“In my almost 20 years in public life, I came to see that the Arab leadership only cares about itself, about keeping its salaries and its seats in the Knesset, and not about the citizens of Israel. Moreover, they’re doing great damage in the way they deal with the Palestinian Authority and the neighboring Arab countries. We as Israeli Arabs need to be a bridge to peace, not fodder for more war,” explained Krenawi in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Over afternoon coffee on the balcony of the Ambassador Hotel in east Jerusalem, Krenawi described his deep disappointment with what he says is the Arab parties’ failure to affect change.
“All of the old faces in these parties should move over and leave politics. What we see is that they just make noise in the Knesset until the ushers kick them out. But that doesn’t put rice and milk on the table,” said Krenawi.
Simply serving as an opposition that speaks out against government policies is an ineffective model, he said. Instead, Hope for Change plans to sit in the government, going where no Arab party has gone before. While Arab parties have sometimes voted with the government, they have never served as an actual coalition partner.
Arab politicians have sometimes complained that when it comes to a crucial vote in the Knesset, the government doesn’t want to rely on the “Arab vote” and therefore discounts it in its coalition politicking.
Click for full JPost coverageClick for full JPost coverage
“Any government that is willing to work with us on our basic principles, and it doesn’t matter from which side of the political spectrum they come, we will support it,” he said.
Krenawi outlined the issues they would most like to work on, including the high rate of violence in Arab community – from domestic violence to drug-related crimes to tensions between large families.
In the area of housing, the absence of permission to expand has led to a pattern of illegal building and subsequent home demolitions by the state. Arab towns and cities, he said, often have no nearby industrial zones, adding to the situation of high unemployment, even for people with advanced degrees.
Moreover, there are basic, significant gaps he feels can be minimized if the money allocated to the Arab sector were better managed.
“I go to a lot of Arab areas and Jewish ones, and I see it’s only in the Arab areas that you can find kids playing in the trash because there isn’t a club or a soccer field.
I’ve found people who are unemployed and don’t have electricity or running water, but they’re still sent an arnona [municipal property tax] bill. How can this be?” asked Krenawi in quick, eloquent Hebrew. “Why is Umm el-Fahm not like Afula? Why is Sakhnin not like Misgav? Why is Rahat not like Omer?”
Krenawi himself is from Rahat, hailing from a Beduin clan of 8,000. He has somewhere between 38 and 40 siblings – he said he’s not exactly sure how many. His father, whom he describes as a fellahi – an old-fashioned Arabic term for the peasant or agricultural class – had all these children via five wives, one more than the usual limit of four because one died. Krenawi is a son of the fourth wife, and, by his own self-definition, did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth.
But he did seek an education, studying computers at different colleges. He wants his own five children – the oldest of whom is a 22-year-old daughter studying to become a lawyer – to marry later, and like him, to have moderate-sized families.
“I respect Islam greatly. But we need to change this attitude of ‘let’s marry him off’ as soon as he begins to look like a man,” Krenawi said. “If you marry people off at 16, what kind of life can they have? The world has changed.
Things do not look as they looked 100 years ago. What kind of life are you giving someone when they start a family so young?” His second-oldest son is studying medicine abroad. He said of his own wife: “She’s a wise woman and I consult with her a lot.” Part of his drive to improve education in the Arab sector – as well as the professional and economic opportunities that follow – includes a national service program for Israeli Arabs. Or, as the No. 2 on his list, Said Badran, prefers to call it, a social service program – sherut hevrati as opposed to sherut leumi.
“Students can serve in their own sector, in schools, in retirement homes, in other community institutions, and develop the culture of doing service – while in return the state will give them the same rights as others get,” said Badran, referring to the fact that Israelis who do army service get certain advantages – from scholarships to mortgage help – which those who don’t serve aren’t eligible to receive.
“Changing the name would change how people see it. And it would have to be put under an administration that will have Arabs on the managerial board, so we have a significant input into what the program looks like.”
Krenawi’s argument that the Israeli Arab sector is ripe for change and tired of its leadership is backed by recent polls.
According to a study of voting patterns released yesterday by the University of Haifa, 82 percent of Israeli Arabs place little or no faith in the government, and 67% lack confidence in the Arab political parties.
As part of the poll, conducted by Statnet on behalf of the Institute for the Advancement of Democracy in Arab Society, 57% said the Arab parties should join the governing coalition in order to better influence decision-making.
Showing its diversity, the third seat on the party’s ticket is Dr.
Marta Suleiman, a Christian woman who runs one of the best private schools in Nazareth. Suleiman, headmaster of St. Joseph’s al-Mutran, which has 800 students, has been working in education for 20 years and has a wide-ranging program for improving education and educational opportunities in the Arab sector.
“One priority will be budgets for schools, because when you look at Jewish schools, there is no way you can compare the budget with schools in the Arab sector yet. We need more hours of lessons, programs for poor children and for gifted children as well,” said Suleiman.
In higher education, she said, too few promising Arab students are finding places in university. Instead, a high number of Arab families send their children to study abroad – just as Krenawi has.
“Parents here invest all their money in sending their kids to other countries to study. But why should they have to study abroad? It’s a waste for both sides. And for those who finish their education, they have very few opportunities when they come back,” explained Suleiman, 44, who is from the Galilee village of Eilabun.
Her decision to run is “not an easy one,” she added, because the same small, mostly Christian village is the home of Hanna Swaid, a two-term Knesset member for Hadash.
The sixth person on the list is also a woman, a lawyer named Amna Abbas. Krenawi hopes to be able to win six to seven mandates, but realizes that the party being brand new means it has limited funds for campaigning – creatig an uphill battle against the more established parties.
“I worked hard to get to where I am today, and I’m not rich,” he says. “We’ll go house to house to spread our message.
We need to change things, but the way to do it is not more demonstrations and by burning the flag of the state. We love this country and we want a fair share in it.
You can’t just cry about what’s wrong without coming forward with solutions over how to fix it.”